The (private) war for FC Barcelona


As many of you already know, the founding and spiritual father of this space, Isaiah, is gone. Real life beckons. But he sent me this, which he calls a “draft,” but which is actually an extraordinary bit of writing, and an example of more of what we are planning, hopefully, for the space this season. This piece is a bit of history, from back when a few of us were muttering things about a soon-to-be club president.

The interest now is first and foremost, as a lovely piece of writing. But I also expect it to have resonance when Joan Laporta officially begins his quest to once again, become president of FC Barcelona.

The victory parade runs for 5 miles through the heart of the city, snaking its way through crowded streets from the airport. Crowds line the streets leading to the colossal stadium, the largest in Europe, while the players ride in an open-topped bus. Flags are waved, trophies hoisted aloft, and bottles of cava are sprayed into the cheering masses. It’s May 2008 and Fútbol Club Barcelona, or Barça as it is known, has just won the European Champions League for the third time in the team’s history. The crowd and players, joyous and unrestrained, scream out “Visca el Barça i visca Catalunya!” “Long live Barça and long live Catalunya!”

Things could not be better on the field, but behind-the-scenes, the club’s history has taken a turn for the more dramatic. It is the classic tale of two men waging a private war using a public institution. One is a politician from the top of his perfectly coiffed head to the soles of his shiny shoes. He laughs for reporters, winks at fans, and has a penchant for expensive cava and cigars.

The other looks like an overgrown child; his ears stick out and he’s got a bucktooth grin that would win over any grandmother. He never looks truly comfortable in a suit, as if he can’t stop fidgeting with his jacket buttons.

For a while these two men, Joan Laporta and Sandro Rosell, ran FC Barcelona together as President and Vice President respectively. A fallout in 2003 resulting from disagreements on how the club should be run turned personal and sent slowly expanding ripples through Barcelona and Catalunya. Despite massive success, Barça is in the midst of a crisis of its own making that threatens to tear the club apart both financially and politically.

Most sports teams are owned by businessmen or investment companies, but Barça is owned by its more than 170,000 members. These socios pay a yearly fee and each is given the right to vote in Barcelona’s presidential elections, which take place every 7 years, and at the yearly General Assembly that governs the actions of the club. The institution is one of just 4 such sports clubs in Spain; the United States has just one similarly modeled team: the Green Bay Packers, who are owned by shareholders that act as voting members. Like the Packers and their Green Bay Packers Foundation, FC Barcelona has a foundation to which it donates 0.7% of its annual revenue, the percentage suggested by the UN Millennium Project. In 2010, that amounted to €2.5 million ($3.5 million).

When Laporta, a wealthy lawyer and the co-founder of Catalunya’s Party for Independence, took over the club in 2003, he promised to rectify the club’s woeful financial situation—€40 million in losses for the 2002-2003 season—and bring sporting success as well. He and Rosell, a young businessman associated primarily with Nike in Brazil, quickly turned the books around. They changed coaches and brought in new players in an effort to improve and expand the club’s brand and, thanks in part to the team’s on-field successes, the club was almost in the black by the end of the 2003-2004 season.

Image courtesy of
Image courtesy of

Laporta’s business model was based on growing the club’s brand internationally, gleaning more money from running the club as much like a corporation as possible, including television and image rights deals. The club struck a TV contract worth nearly $1billion with Spanish media company Mediaproduccion SL and then launched a successful membership drive designed to pull in thousands of casual fans and bring foreign-based fans into the club in a way that had not previously occurred.

Unlike in American sports, each team in Spain has the right to negotiate its own TV deal independently of all other teams. Because of this, Real Madrid and Barcelona, the two biggest teams in the country, control approximately 60% of the total TV revenue. This is fantastic if you’re a fan of either of those two teams, but if you follow minnows Levante or even the moderately sized Sevilla, you’re not guaranteed to see your team play on TV and your team is not guaranteed a steady revenue stream year-to-year.

The Barça brand became an international powerhouse with lucrative sponsorship deals from Nike, Audi, and Spanish beer giant Estrella Damm. Yet there was still a strong connection with the club’s motto, més que un club (More Than a Club), through a unique agreement with the United Nations children’s fund UNICEF, in which the club paid the organization for the right to put their logo on the team’s shirt in lieu of a paying sponsor. Laporta also ratcheted up the Catalan sentiment within the club and region. The senyera, the red and yellow striped Catalan flag, began to appear more frequently on the player’s jerseys and even on club press releases and documents.

Thanks in part to the Mediapro deal, ever-expanding membership ranks, and sponsorship deals, Barcelona’s long-term financial success appeared assured. In June 2010, however, Mediapro filed for bankruptcy and the effect on revenue threatened to be colossal. Still, with Laporta’s administration claiming large profits despite hefty transfer fees paid for players like Dani Alves and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, there seemed to be no threat to Barcelona’s position as the selfproclaimed world’s greatest team. Barça’s membership smiled glibly and held their heads high as reports came in of other clubs looking at record debt levels while failing to win trophies.

FC Barcelona holds presidential elections every 7 years and in June 2010, the same month that Mediapro was sending a stinging reminder of the financial insecurity upon which the club had wagered its future, an election was held. Barcelona presidents are limited to just one seven-year term, forcing Laporta to run a successor in his stead while he himself turned to greater political aspirations. It was no secret that he planned to run for elected office in the Catalan Parliament and turn his sporting success into something more.

Into this mix stepped Sandro Rosell. Critical of Laporta whenever there was a slip up at the club and demurely silent during times of success, Rosell had become a vocal thorn in the administration’s side. He had overseen the beginning of the resurrection of the club and he ran for president on a platform of transparency and solid business ethics. Yet what had been an undertone of Catalan identity politics in previous years became the overarching theme connecting the 2010 political campaigns.

Former VP Marc Ingla ran on a motto of més català que mai (More Catalan Than Ever) while Rosell, speaking on Radio Marca during the campaign, suggested African players were taking youth academy spots from “our boys.”

The undoing of Laporta’s administration was swift and decisive. The election itself was held on June 13, 2010 and Sandro Rosell walked out with over 61% of the vote. Laporta’s hand-picked successor, Jaume Ferrer, came in dead last out of 4 with just 10.8% of the vote.

Backed by his enormous electoral victory, Rosell swiftly fired a broadside at Laporta when he declared, only days after taking office on July 1st, that Laporta had been cooking the books and what had been reported as an €11 million surplus for the year was really a €70 million loss.

The Laporta administration was accused of various indulgences with the club’s budget, including overuse of private planes, some €20,000 a game on catering to the presidential box, and almost €2 million in private investigations into players, coaches, and board members. Laporta’s treasurer, Xavier Sala-i-Martin, a professor of economics at Columbia University in New York, wrote a screed attacking Rosell’s numbers that he posted to Facebook, accusing the new administration of appropriating economic successes for their own budget and moving costs to Laporta’s prior budget.

The revelations that the books may have different “real” figures than the ones released earlier is no surprise, but it’s what has happened because of that discrepancy that is chilling. The annual members’ assembly in October 2010 held Laporta personally accountable for what was finally figured as a €48 million loss. It passed by just 29 votes, 468 to 439 with 113 abstentions.

Rosell presented the vote, but then abstained, drawing rolled eyes from some and attacks on his character from others, including respected Spanish journalist Santiago Segurola.

Rosell’s administration then promised that on November 2, 2011, they would release all the documents proving conclusively that Laporta had, indeed, cooked the books. It was a move billed as part of their open and transparent approach, but when the date arrived, only a short summary was released. It included no new information and was shown only to those who could personally show up at the members’ office in Barcelona.

A fundamental shift in the club’s approach to the outside world has occurred as well, with the Rosell administration introducing membership restrictions. The Laporta administration made a show of being open and welcoming to fans from around the globe through their massive membership drive, but now only current members, former members, direct relatives of current members, and those under 14 are allowed to be members. While not a particularly draconian set of membership requirements — anyone with a relative under the age of 14 can become a member, it just costs twice as much since you have to enroll them for a year—it is a fundamental shift in the club’s approach.

Despite these personal setbacks, Laporta managed to lead the Solidaritat Catalana per la Independència (Catalan Solidarity for Independence) party to minor parliamentary victory. He and three other politicians won seats in the 135-member house. He also turned his attention to defending himself in open letters, huffily calling the charges against him lies and suggesting that Rosell is in cahoots with Barcelona’s hooligan group, the Boixos Nois, who once threatened Laporta’s life for banning them from the stadium and went so far as to personally confront him in front of his house in 2004.

Fans can be fickle beings, of course, and whether or not Rosell’s attempts to “catalanize” and politically isolate the club succeed could come down to trophies won on the field, much as Laporta was banking on the team’s success to catapult him to regional office. If legacies are their aim, they would both do well to remember Josep Lluís Núñez, Barcelona’s president between 1978 and 2003. Despite his tally of 18 major trophies under his watch, Núñez is not a man well remembered by the Barça faithful thanks to political and financial troubles.

Given that Laporta managed 8 such trophies and Rosell has just 2 to his name so far, causing further uproar within the club could easily backfire on them, especially the current president.

What was merely a tiff between two rich businessmen has become a battle for the very soul of FC Barcelona. Members are aligning with one or the other, calling Laporta either a godsend or a travesty, leaving little wiggle room in between, and in the process changing the fundamental realities within the club.

A team founded by a Swiss, with an Argentine — Lionel Messi — as its star and spokesperson, its jerseys made by an American mega-company with a Qatari non profit foundation emblazoned across those shirts, has closed many of its doors to the outside world. It has chosen instead to reverse the expansion of the last several years and fight a battle on nationalist turf. This dichotomy, of being both international yet closed to that very fan base, has caused a rift in a time of massive sporting success and threatens to break Barcelona apart just as they are on the cusp of the unthinkable: being branded the greatest club of all time by everyone.

By Kxevin

In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.


  1. A respected spanish journalist ‘daniel campos’, Claims that barca didn’t stop the negotiations with david luiz, And the whole martino waiting for puyol is a ploy to cool down the media’s involvement.

  2. What’s with all the negativity?? If anyone recalls how painful the Athletico game was to watch, this was 100 times better. Not our best performance.. but away against a top la liga side, I’ll gladly take 3 points.
    Visca Barca!!

  3. Hmm. i for one thought it was a bad game. not much movement from forwards. Pedro had one decent movement when cesc played a through ball but his touch was atrocious.
    I dont understand all this Sanchez and Song hype. Seems some people will defend them because they nailed their trousers onto the mast when they proclaimed the signings. Sanchez’s work rate is good but he just cant dribble past anybody or cross. I thought cuenca was better in both aspects. Damn his brittle constitution.
    Alba needs to watch some Abidal videos on defending. He is still important in attack since he can get past the defenders and send a cut back. but xavi n insiesta are ignoring that wing repeatedly. quickly get neymar on that wing and make it productive.

    Masche is a genius. Has anybody dribbled past him. He should learn to jump with weights on his ankles and become like cannavaro who was 5’10 and could outjump taller strikers.

    1. Agree with you on Sanchez. I also believe people hype his work rate too much. His problem every time in box is that he wants to take an extra touch. Always he does it. May be the issue is that he is not at all a forward or a winger. I think Kxevin/Isiah earlier wrote a post of how he is actually a Number 10. I think that could be the issue. Whatever he does will look better if he plays as a number 10. But then that’s not possible for him at Barca.

  4. An Unrelated News.

    BREAKING: Madrid and Spurs finally agree world record £86m Bale deal. [Daily Mirror].

    So, he’s broken dude’s record, and would push dude outta his preferred position. Wow.

    Anyhow. El Classico, now an exquisite chalice.

  5. Sky sports are saying that tottenham are in negotiations with more than one club and also that they are yet to agree a deal with real madrid. Sky sports are normally very reliable too.

  6. — Unimpressive game but I’ll take the 3 points happily.
    — We need to show a similar away form like last year’s to take this year’s Liga.
    — Messi’s injuries are a cause for concern. How is it the guy managed to stay fit for all of Pep’s 4 years?
    — How can we ensure Adriano has better durability?
    — Valdes was huge yesterday. Saved our asses.
    — Is there any chance of us still buying a CB before the window closes?
    — Is it just me, or has Xavi become way more conservative? He is not looking confident receiving and dribbling the ball in tight spaces and looking for the killer through ball that came naturally to him before? In other words, he has become less attacking.
    — Whats up with the funk Iniesta is in? It’s of paramount importance that he reproduce last year’s form and magic, now that our deputy MF magician in thiago has left.
    — I thought Song was decent. Different to Busquets, but effective.
    — I very much liked Neymar’s cameo this time. Impressed me the most in our colors yet, in this game.
    — I think Neymar should start taking atleast 50% (if not more) of the freekicks Xavi feels entitled to take. Same for corners.
    — I like that EE feels compelled to spend 100M + on their #11 to compete with our #11. Lets hope its a disastrous gamble for them and a rewarding one for us.

    Visca. We need to win more games like this one for silverware hopes, be it in spain or europe.

    1. There’s such a thing as cumulative mileage on an athlete’s body. Drive that thing like a taxi and it won’t last as long as your personal car. Pep and Tito rode Messi like a cab-88% of available minutes.

    2. Actually, your explanation makes more sense. I don’t believe that after Guardiola left, Messi went back to steaks, coke and sweets.

    3. Yes, yes, thank you, yes, yes, YES!

      If you buy a car, and drive it like you stole it for four years, then you hand the keys to someone else, and they drive it like they stole it for a year, then you get it and it doesn’t run so good, some might say “Hey, what did you do to the car?”

      Others would say it’s a wonder the car didn’t break down sooner.

  7. Good win, tough match. Tougher than i expected it to be.

    Specifically want to say about Alba. Was ambivalent about him when we signed him and have gone off him. He is a good player but not a right fit for us. Also, he is not a defender.

    Football, at the end of the day, is a physical game and we need some height. With Alves on one side and Alba on other, we will be weak defensively.

    We need a bigger left back or right back to compensate for lack of height.

    1. I think Alba is a long-term plan to replace the Alvez act. Our attack will be more left-sided with Iniesta and Neymar on that flank, as the right flank becomes more defensive. It’s natural when Montoya starts to get more minutes. Right now, Alvez still has a few miles left and is invaluable in intangibles serving as Neymar’s tour guide and paisano. Masch is one of my favorite players but we need to sign a taller, pacy converted DM type to partner Pique. Perhaps Bagnack can be the answer as early as next year, this year is a tight rope for fans unless Zubi can pull a rabbit out of the hat or Puyi drinks from the fountain of youth (ain’t gonna happen).

    2. I would rather buy a big defensive full back than a center back at the moment, so that Barca does not have to play Alba and Alvez together.

      Someone like younger Abidal would be perfect.

    3. Or the old Abidal.
      The Yaya was reported as saying Barca is still the club of his heart. I say hire him back as the new CB signing and pay him whatever Citeh does. Or switch to a 3-4-3 system with two DMs. Right now, the opposition has been pressing the heck out of our midfield as they sense it has lost a step.

  8. yestaday’s match was just as expected. For the past 4 or 5 seasons, we’ve not learnt to win without messi: every tactical tweak was made to suit messi. What happens if is not there? The team lacks direction in attack. I just hope, messi doesn’t get to play, or atleast, start every match, so the team can learn to play without him. Personally, come wednesday, I’d be drooling over a line up of ney/tello,cesc and tello in attack, ini,busi,song (its gonna be physical) in mid and *adriano(hoping he’ll be fit), smasch,pique and alves in defence

    1. This aint FIFA dude,they should learn to play without messi if he isn’t (fit),but to not play messi when he is fit because of some experiment is ridiculous.

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